The Importance of a Farm Employee Handbook
In your handbook, describe compensation issues, including how work time is recorded or calculated, starting pay rate, why and when it may increase, the pay period and payroll deductions.
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There are many reasons to write an employee handbook, or to update the one you have if it's not as complete as you'd like. If it's well-written, this document can save you lots of time and aggravation down the road. It can also enhance employee performance by helping them understand exactly what you expect. In addition, the handbook can be a useful tool for orientation when you hire new help.
Why write a handbook?
A high-quality employee handbook makes a statement to your workforce that they are important to the success of your business, and it explains their role and responsibilities in achieving that success. The handbook can improve communication with employees by clearly laying out your expectations for their behavior - what they should and should not do. This can make it easier to have "difficult" conversations when and if performance problems arise.
By explaining work procedures on paper, a handbook also helps ensure that all farmworkers are treated fairly, because they and their supervisors should have a common understanding of expectations.
Finally, legal claims by disgruntled former employees may be prevented if you have an employee handbook that clearly specifies expectations for all employees and the consequences of not meeting those expectations.
In short, a good employee handbook can help avoid workplace problems while enhancing the productivity of your labor force.
All new employees need answers to obvious questions like "Where should I park?" and "What are my work hours?" and "When do I get paid?" They also need answers to questions they may not ask, like "Who do I call if I'm late?" or "When can I use my cellphone?" They may not ask, but they also need to know the answer to the question "What will get me fired?"
There are many reasons to write an employee handbook, or to update the one you have if it's not as complete as you'd like.
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What should be in the handbook?
An employee handbook can be as simple or as complicated as your farm situation calls for. Large operations may want it to contain detailed information about a variety of personnel policies, pay scales, and benefits that probably require some legal advice before you finalize them. Small operations may only need a few pieces of paper that spell out the basics of how your farm works, what you expect from your help, and how they have to behave if they want to keep their job.
There are hundreds of topics that could be covered in an employee handbook, but it's a good idea to only include statements about issues that make sense for your farm. What information is needed to orient new help, meet a legal need, answer common questions that workers have, or address past labor problems that could have been prevented? When a new employee situation arises that may crop up again, be sure to modify your handbook to address it. For example, rules about texting during work probably weren't included in employee handbooks a few years ago.
Here are some suggestions about what an employee handbook should contain. Start with an introduction, and then cover general farm procedures, personnel policies and legal statements, such as a nondiscrimination policy. Within these sections can be many topics, some of which are described below. Start by picking the topics that seem most important for your farm and write a simple, short summary that all employees will understand.
Handbook Introduction - Welcome the reader, your employee, to the farm. Explain that the purpose of the handbook is to acquaint them with the farm, its policies and rules, and their benefits and privileges. If you have a mission statement, include it. Provide some history of the farm operation and describe the products and markets you serve. When you hire an employee, ask them to read the entire handbook and keep it around for future reference as questions arise.
To help employees understand your management style, it can be helpful to describe the farm's organization as a business. Who are the owners? Who will be the employee's direct supervisor? List who is in charge of different aspects of the farm, such as field production, retail or wholesale marketing, etc.
General farm information - These things usually apply to everyone at the farm: managers, customers and employees. Include information about the smoking (or nonsmoking) policy; location of emergency medical information, supplies and eyewash station; certain sanitation and safety issues such as footwear requirements and hand washing prior to handling food for retail sale; observing posted warning signs; and location of public bathrooms, telephone, fire alarms or extinguishers. These days, many farms have food safety plans, and you may want to state that all employees are required to read and follow that plan.
Personnel policies - This is the core of your employee handbook. Describe the work hours, including daily and weekly schedules, days off, break times and duration, and overtime work, if applicable. Describe compensation issues, including how work time is recorded or calculated, starting pay rate, why and when it may increase, the pay period and payroll deductions. Be specific about how employee performance can lead to raises or bonuses. Is there a probationary period before wages or hours are increased or responsibilities are expanded? How is employee performance evaluated, by whom, and how often?
Expectations about the working environment should be spelled out. Explain where employees are allowed to park, wash, go to the bathroom, eat or prepare meals, take breaks, smoke and make phone calls. What type of clothing, footwear and protective equipment (such as hats and sunscreen) should they bring to work? Note the PPE that you will provide for employees. What is your policy about their use of farm equipment and farm vehicles? Who may apply pesticides, fertilizers or other chemicals used on the farm? How are employees expected to behave in the presence of customers?
The terms of employment on some seasonal farms are "employment at will," where either party can end the relationship at any time for any reason. If this is so, state that clearly. If you have a contractual relationship with an employee, that will likely be negotiated on an individual basis, and the terms will be in a separate document.
Vacation time, personal time and sick leave should be addressed. Under what circumstances, if any, is an employee eligible for paid leave? Who should the employee call to report if they will be absent or tardy? How much notice would you like to receive from an employee before they stop working at your farm, and in turn expect to offer if circumstances allow? What should employees expect with regard to the timing and duration of winter layoffs?
Benefits should be described. What insurance are employees eligible for? Spell out that under the law they are covered by workers' compensation and must report any injuries promptly to their supervisor and also fill out the appropriate paperwork. If employees can get free food or buy products at a discount from the farm, describe this arrangement.
Discipline - Make a list of actions that are grounds for disciplinary action, including termination of employment. Drug or alcohol use, theft, harassment, fighting, intentional damage to equipment, possession of weapons, disregard for safety and insubordination are behaviors that should be expressly prohibited.
Conflict resolution - If an employee has a disagreement with a peer or a supervisor, to whom should they take it? What are their options if they have a grievance about a policy or practice?
Legal statements - You should include a statement of nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in your handbook. You may also want a statement about conflict of interest, which prohibits employees from having an interest in a business operation that would compete with your farm. Finally, include a statement that the handbook is not a contract, but rather a guide for employees.
The University of Minnesota has a checklist covering many topics you might want to include in a farm employee handbook: http://bit.ly/19lGmAI.
The Ministry of Agriculture in British Columbia has a good example of a small vegetable farm employee handbook: http://bit.ly/1hCfhS7.
The author is a vegetable and berry specialist with University of Vermont Extension based at the Brattleboro office. He can be reached at email@example.com.